This week in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

i.e., talking about restructuring the Episcopal Church

Scott Gunn, in his blogging blue series, has this to say about a resolution to create a task force focused on restructuring:

when this task force is convened, we need to make sure it doesn’t have any of the usual suspects. The same people will bring us the same ideas. That’s not what we need. And if at any point you voted in favor of the disaster of a budget that came out of various committees and Executive Council, you especially should not be on this group. Not that anyone will pay attention to the ranting of a simple blogger.

A thoughtful post from Unapologetic Theology on gnats, camels and General Convention. He puts his finger on what I’ve been thinking, too:

Rather, I’ve come to believe in the concept of “parallel growth change.”

“Parallel growth” is a strategy apparently adopted by some major corporations that face issues similar to the Episcopal Church: outdated structures, bloated budgets, overly centralized and irrelevant systems.

The theory is this: Those interested in change should resist the temptation to battle the system or try to change the dominant, inherited culture – battles that only end up causing turf wars because people tend protect “the way things are.”

Rather, leaders who are in favor of change are encouraged to all but ignore “the system” and concentrate almost all their efforts on encouraging healthy franchises – those local retailers that are doing well in spite of “corporate” policy or procedures.

The analogy isn’t perfect – we’re not a corporation – but how that looks in the Episcopal Church is that people who are in favor of change should all but ignore “the system” and concentrate their efforts on encouraging healthy congregations – those congregations that are growing and mission-minded in spite of diocesan or “national” structures.

Susan Brown Snook is thinking along the same lines:

Let’s put everything on the table at this Convention – the budget, the structures of the church, the shape of Convention itself.  Let’s not spend our time wrangling over niceties in an endless series of resolutions that will make no difference to the church.  Instead, let’s have a conversation about where Jesus is leading us.  Let’s pray and read the Bible and discern where God is calling us to go.  Let’s network and share and listen for the voices of the ones who aren’t often heard – the younger, less experienced people who have a better understanding of the future that lies ahead.

The Future of America? The Future of the Church? George Scialabba on Morris Berman

George Scialabba writes a moving essay detailing Morris Berman’s view on the decline of American civilization:

As a former medievalist, Berman finds contemporary parallels to the fall of Rome compelling. By the end of the empire, he points out, economic inequality was drastic and increasing, the legitimacy and efficacy of the state was waning, popular culture was debased, civic virtue among elites was practically nonexistent, and imperial military commitments were hopelessly unsustainable. As these volumes abundantly illustrate, this is 21st century America in a nutshell.

But is there hope? Yes:

Berman offers little comfort, but he does note a possible role for those who perceive the inevitability of our civilization’s decline. He calls it the “monastic option.” Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by “creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye.” Even if one’s ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.

Sounds like the Early (now “Late”) Church to me. More food for thought as we think about mission and restructuring.

Think we’ve (Episcopalians) got it bad? Check out the Methodists

Tony Jones blogs a reflection on the United Methodist General Conference that took place a couple of weeks ago.

The eye-popping numbers: It cost $1500/minute!!! (I hope someone does the numbers for our own General Convention).

Will Willimon comments. Willimon’s warning applies to us as well:

My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.”  Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from thesystemdesire.  Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.

Jones concludes:

All bureaucracies are good at one thing: self-perpetuation. They may be good at other things, too, but the propagation of the gospel is not one of those. Bureaucracy is good at distributing drivers licenses. But bureaucracies are bad for the gospel.

Mission, Structure, and Budget–Following the Debate

Here are links to various things I talked about last night.

And if you’re a hardcore Episco-geek, here’s the link to the General Convention website (mature audiences only)

And the blogs I mentioned (where to follow the debate)

Structure and Mission–Today’s ruminations

This evening, I will be making a presentation to a small group of interested Episcopalians on Mission, Structure, and Budget. We’re meeting on Tuesdays in May to talk about the key issues that will be discussed at this summer’s General Convention. This one promises to be a major focus, even though on the surface, it doesn’t seem particularly interesting.

So today, I’m preparing. I’ve got charts and graphs, lots of statistics (I won’t present very much budget detail). But I’m also reading a lot, re-reading the debate that’s been taking place at least since the fall of 2011, and reading other pieces. For example, Seaburynext offers a series of reflections on their “Great Awakening” conference that took place this past January. At it, Bishop Jeff Lee (of Chicago) invited participants to write for themselves permission slips. Bishop Lee, Diana Butler Bass, and others have been reflecting on what was written.

McLaren has this to say:

The same with structure. In the modern/colonial era, colonial structures competed for “religious market share” and each claimed greater legitimacy than the others. As we emerge from that “my structure is better than yours” mindset, we realize that any structure can become problematic … and that any structure (including episcopal ones!) can serve our essential message, meaning, and mission.

That’s why an Episcopal Church that uses organ, incense, and vestments can be more of an emerging church than one that uses a rock and roll band, blue jeans, and uber-casual style. If it’s focused on a missional understanding of the church derived from a Kingdom-of-God understanding of the gospel, it’s emerging from the old paradigms.

If we take those understandings as seriously as we should, we may see Episcopal Churches finding permission to experiment, explore, and evolve into new styles and structures. In that way, Episcopal identity may become more like the fair food or healthy eating movements (united by a common vision and values) and less like the old McDonald’s (united by the externals – the same menu, pricing, uniforms, and golden arches).

I’m struck by what Brian says, given the news we learned today that shows a lack of interest in revising The Hymnal 1982. Those under 30 were most opposed. To use his language, The Hymnal 1982 can be “missional” if it helps us proclaim the Gospel and if we are allowed to experiment and develop new styles alongside it.

Among the things for which people asked permission:

As I read what people wrote on their permission slips, I’m struck by how much we long for permission to turn loose of fear. “Permission to say where the church is failing,” one person requested. “I want permission to try radically new ways of “doing” and “being” (the) Church whether or not they succeed.  I want to be allowed the grace to fail,” wrote another. “Permission not to be afraid of failure,” another requested.

The seaburynext blog is here.

Meanwhile, Steven Ayers has some things to say about the role of the clergy in the Episcopal Church of the future.

My head’s abuzz with thoughts about restructuring

I’m spending the afternoon and evening today with folks from the Episcopal Church Foundation, the Bishop, and executive council, and the diocesan strategic planning task force. I’m excited about what we’ll be doing–rethinking what it means to be a diocese in the twenty-first century.

I’m also excited because I’ve been thinking about a couple of blog posts I’ve read in the past couple of days. First of all, from my dear old friend, Crusty Old Dean,, who produced another of his impassioned posts on restructuring. His point 4 is what we will be talking about:

4)  End parishes as clubs for members with a chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees.  Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close?  How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered?  How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support?  How many dioceses are struggling to function?  We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese.

But read the whole thing. He argues that the problem is bigger than we’re imagining. He predicts “total collapse.” As a historian, he provides necessary context, reminding us that the growth and success the Episcopal Church saw in the 20th century was a blip. It was an anomaly, far different from the experience of the church in the nineteenth century.

A post on another blog asks similar questions from a slightly different perspective: “Where have all the rectors gone?”

We’ve seen such enormous social change before in the history of Christianity.  and Christianity has been able to respond creatively and in quite unforeseen ways. Take the Evangelical and Methodist revival during the Industrial Revolution in England, when the CoE was still structured like the Medieval Church. Or the twelfth century, when rapid population change and the growth of cities saw the birth of movements like the Franciscans. What will emerge in this rapidly changing cultural context?

I’m somewhat bemused today to realize that my life is coming back full circle. I grew up in the Mennonite Church. In college and graduate school, I attended congregations that grew out of the house church movement, which was an attempt to return both to the Anabaptist roots of the Mennonite Church, and to the experience of the early church, before Christians started building churches and creating elaborate structures. The house churches eventually grew and developed. One I attended rents space from another church and is able to have paid clergy, after decades of volunteers. The same is true of the Mennonite congregation here in Madison. They don’t have the enormous physical plant overhead of most Episcopal parishes.

What might an Episcopal equivalent look like? The problem is that we tend to measure success in terms of structure, program, and buildings, not in changed lives, ministry, and making the good news incarnate in our communities and in the world. That may look very different in different places.

We need to ask the kinds of hard questions Crusty Old Dean is asking. We need to ask them, not only of the structures above us (the Presiding Bishop, 815, General Convention). We also need to ask them at the diocesan level and in our local communities. It’s difficult to grow a congregation in an area that is in the midst of long-term economic and demographic decline, as many small towns are. What is sustainable in such places? What might the metrics for a “thriving” congregation in such a context be? And what might be possible if that congregation no longer needed to focus on paying utility bills and fixing the roof?

Restructuring the Church–the view from the United Methodists

So they’re having the same debate The Episcopal Church is having.

A blog post from an observer outside the meeting provides insight into the similarities and differences between the two debates, and the two denominations.

We might learn from this effort, which apparently got voted down, on how to go about ours. Apparently the plan was devised by outside corporate (!) consultants, gathered steam from the bishops and was supported by some denominational megachurches. It’s largely an effort to streamline authority, which almost always means increased centralization.

The blogger links to the musings of another Methodist, on matters of restructuring and other things. Among the points made:

  • You might be surprised at how quickly a notion, fad or trend can take hold in certain quarters of this denomination. The desire to immediately act on what some perceive as a good idea, although it may in fact be a fad, is what is meant by the need for “nimbleness” in restructuring.

  • You can triple the size of the general-church structure or you can wipe it out entirely and it will make almost no difference in membership gain or loss.

Membership growth has more to do with welcoming congregations that offer compelling ministries and good worship. There’s not enough of that. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.

I hope people in The Episcopal Church are taking notes and learning from the Methodists here. It’s not the first time they’ve had something to teach us.

So why not allow some experimentation with restructuring?

There’s been considerable debate in the Episcopal Church over the past few months about restructuring the church. The problems are clear. We can’t financially sustain the current structure of national church offices, provinces, dioceses, and parishes as they are currently conceived, and it’s not clear that the current structure, even if it were well-grounded financially, serves the current mission needs of the church.

So what to do? Bishop Sauls has offered his proposal, about which I’ve already made comment. Others have also weighed in. Currently, my friend Crusty Old Dean is putting forth a very thoughtful and provocative set of proposals: part I, part II, part III, part IV (I knew him before he ascended the heights of academe). I urge everyone interested in the future direction of the church to read carefully what he is proposing.

At the same time, in the Diocese of South Carolina, a certain restructuring is already taking place. Bishop Mark Lawrence recently issued quit-claim deeds to the parishes in the diocese, essentially granting them property rights to parish property (which canonically is owned by or held in trust by, the diocese). This move has aroused considerable anxiety and outrage among “institutional” (most of whom are progressive) Episcopalians. Mark Harris comments on developments here and here.

I find this response quite interesting. Given that the diocese as an institution is a relic of an earlier age, that the ownership of property is one of the most contentious (and expensive) issues in the conflicts within the church, I wonder what the harm is with making this change? It may go against the constitution and canons, but perhaps they ought to be changed, and indeed, Bishop Lawrence may be right that the current understanding is something of an innovation. Why use the heavy cudgel of authority and constitution to force compliance or membership, when we might all be better served going our separate ways.

One of the chief arguments in favor of restructuring is to allow more horizontal relationships across diocesan and provincial boundaries. Might there be a way that people who share theological perspectives might found solace, strength, and comfort, by creating bonds with like-minded people across the church, at the same time remaining under the umbrella of the Episcopal Church? In a sense, that’s what earlier efforts at providing alternative episcopal oversight to parishes that struggled with their bishop’s perspective were meant to do. No, it’s not a perfect solution. But the question may finally come down to whether the only things that unite us as a denomination are property and the Church Pension Fund.